Stepping off the train in the city of Rennes, you're met with crepe stalls, gorgeous architecture and grey skies that remind you that you're not too far away from home. Whilst it might not be a festival you've ever heard of before, Les Transmusicales de Rennes is now in its 36th year. With previous line-ups including the likes of Nirvana, you could almost think of it as the French Great Escape, in which lots of bands and artists play before they "hit the big time".
The town itself is a beautiful and understated environment; as it's the holiday season, there's plenty of lights in the trees, with cute bridges and cobbled streets as well as markets selling everything from cheese and jam, to lamp shades and bedsheets. Everyone is friendly and welcoming and you'll be hard pressed not to stop for a coffee or two in the early afternoon, falling a little bit in love with the place with each sip.
Taking place during the first weekend of December, you won't be expected to stand in the freezing conditions. Instead, there's a festival hub in the centre of town, bursting with media, artists and eager locals – you'll find about 85% of them smoking outside. There's a small stage area upstairs, where you can buy a pint or two whilst enjoying some of the early contenders and no, it's not as cheap as you think it would be. Later on in the evening, you can catch one of the buses – which run every 5 or 10 minutes – to the main arena for the festival, the Parc Expo. Consisting of various 'halls', some of these ex-aircraft hangers are decked out with Coco Cabana-style lamps and tables, whilst others simply play host with huge empty spaces for the bigger bands.
It's a pretty surreal experience at first; from getting on the bus to driving to the middle of nowhere to getting lost in the ever-confusing realm of the halls, you'll only start to get a feel for the place after a day or two. A few positives must be pointed out though: there's hardly ever a queue for the toilet or the bar; you can even get money off your next pint if you bring your cup back – resulting in none of that echoing plastic stomping we're so familiar with here; the security are pretty laid back once you're in and there's almost always somewhere cosy to sit if you fancy a quick pit-stop before your next band.
So, as you can imagine, as the days go on, the intensity increases. Thursday night is a pretty humble affair, with a few local acts easing us in slowly to the experience. The first band I have the pleasure of watching is Gandi Lake – a five-piece who are clearly huge Manic Street Preachers fans. Usually I don't have time for copy-cats, but this indie-pop outfit do it with such charm, that even those not drunk enough yet are nodding their heads along with an appreciative joy. The frontman speaks in French but sings in English – something you'll see a lot over the weekend – and the band finish things off with an ever-tight crescendo of guitars and synths.
Next up is Clarens, who is pretty much owning one of the massive halls, despite it only being about 1/4 full. He's nailed the kind of trip-hop that FKA Twigs and Frank Ocean have propelled over the past few years. His ambient R&B vocal is beautifully put together, with Disclosure-like backing DJs and really rather lovely black and white visuals. I'd expect to see this guy on plenty of highbrow music blogs come next year and it's at this moment, that the point of this festival is realised – it's for guys like Clarens who are definitely going to be massive next year.
One of the the headliners tonight is success story Courtney Barnett. Entering the hall, we're hit with a wall of noise, with Barnett doing what can only be described as 'shredding the shit out of her guitar'. It doesn't ever get boring; I could honestly listen to her grunge/country/indie output for hours and her charming between-song banter makes her all the more enjoyable. She plays hits from The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas but it's obviously 'Avant Gardener' that gets the crowd riled up. These French folks know every word and as Barnett finishes up in a mist of red lights and heavy smoke, it's clear how far the Australian singer-songwriter has come in the past two years.
Back in the other hall, Curtis Harding is playing his blend of bluesy rock. After the SXSW buzz, I'm expecting a lot and to be honest, I don't really get it. There's the James Brown style swag and the sunglasses on indoors thing going on but there's nothing that new. He's certainly talented as he plays a few solos and even shows off some of his dance moves but there's something Eagle Eye Cherry about him that I just can't shift. Don't get me wrong, 'Save Tonight' is an absolute tune but Curtis is simply regurgitating what's already been done before; he's doing it well but there's only so much of repeated line 'just keep on shining' I can take without my British cynicism seeping in.
Kate Tempest aux Trans Musicales 2014
Kate Tempest finishes the evening and after her Mercury Awards stint, it doesn't surprise me that the hall is packed full. But how will this woman's tales of South London fair with a French crowd? Pretty damn good it seems. Tempest is full of energy. She bounces from far left to far right, pointing to crowd members and encouraging sing-alongs. She has this feverish intensity that you can't help but latch onto, proving Tempest to be one of the most impressive acts I've seen in a long while. The sound production is on-point; the lights are on-point and boy, is Tempest's backing singer a force to be reckoned with – she dances, she jumps and when she sings solo, she just about stops everyone in their tracks. Kate Tempest truly brought the house down tonight.
As the weekend goes on, it's clear that the French have a thing for post-New Order, electronica type stuff. There's almost always some sort of synth on stage and there's more than a few bands dressed all in black with a moody backdrop. One such band is Grand Blanc, who's homage to Depeche Mode ends up working pretty well. They don't really put too much of their own unique elements into the mix but if 80s electronica pop is your sort of thing, you'll definitely enjoy them.
Denmark's Dad Rocks pull a pretty hefty crowd and it's easy to see why they please so many. Describing themselves as "folk-hop, anti-core," they're the kind of outfit that nail the Beirut / Kings of Convenience thing. There's the strings, the 'woah-ah-ohs' and the sing-a-longs and frontman Snævar Njáll Albertsson does an incredible job of keeping a constant energy going. At times, you almost forget you're in the middle of a massive air hanger – these guys easily transport us to a grassy field in the height of summer.
Cosmo Sheldrake is playing in the next hall and it's a world away from what we've just come from. The 24-year-old multi-instrumentalist accompanies his loops with accordions, banjos and brass instruments. There's robotic vocals, irregular time signatures and some hooks that are not unlike Alt J's latest stuff. When he's not performing at shows, Cosmo Sheldrake teaches music and even composes original soundtracks for movies. Whilst his blend of hip-hop, electro and folk might be everyone's cup of tea, you can certainly appreciate his talents.
Just like the Great Escape, there's also a sort of alternative festival going on in the city centre. Dubbed "thirst street," there's an area lined with bars, with locals pouring out of the doors and sipping on half-pints of beer. Bars en Trans aims to showcase local and more wide-spread talent for a few euros – if you don't manage to get a wristband, you can usually pay about 5 euros entry to each bar. However, if there's someone you're desperate to see, you need to get there early as these venues fill up real quick.
Fallabella are one of the acts taking to the stage in an adjoining room, in a cramped bar that's packed to the brim. Everyone's in good spirits though, so it makes the atmosphere pretty great. The room allows for about 80 people but with the low ceilings and cornered stage, it can feel slightly claustrophobic at times. As a band, they're instantly tight with electronic drums, heavy bass and hooks you can't help but join in with the swarm of bobbing heads. The almost math-rock execution is surprisingly impressive and one that ensures most of this packed out room stays exactly where they are.
Up next is electro-pop duo C.A.R. (I told you there was a lot of electro-pop) that's the brain child of Chloe Raunet. It's clear there's a La Roux thing going on and as the thumping backdrop continues to ring through our ears, Raunet climbs the PA and has some of the crowd completely transfixed. Unfortunately it gets a bit samey after a while – the same sort of beat and the same lyrical context – that sees the crowd start to dwindle slightly about half-way through. Raunet's voice is great though and isn't too far from early Sleater-Kinney Carrie Brownstein – it's just a shame she's in an electro duo and not a punk band.
After having a few drinks on thirst street, a few of us decide to head back to the air hangers for Lizzo. The bus stops are overflowing with teenagers swilling cheap booze, dressed in onesies and covered in face paint; it's not a world away from a Saturday night at Bestival or Reading. Arriving at the Parc Expo, this is the busiest it's been all year and to be honest, the queuing system gets a bit scary. As a 5'2" woman, I can't see ahead, behind or to the side because of all the people around me – there's no way to get out except to go forward and as I'm pretty much carried to the front due to the sheer amount of people present, it's a huge relief to get inside the venue. The halls are pretty much the same too – if you ever want to leave at the end of a set, be prepared to be smooshed-up against complete strangers. The halls themselves have plenty of room but this is definitely a festival that needs to work a little on its crowd management skills.
So, back to Lizzo. After her debut album Lizzobangers came out earlier this year, she's propelled to extreme heights; performing on Letterman, singing on the latest Prince album and impressing both critics and consumers. In my opinion, she's one of the most underrated artists this year and this performance certainly confirms that. Accompanied by Sophia Eris, these two ladies absolutely own the stage tonight. As Sophia begins proceedings by spinning Ludacris' 'Move Bitch,' the hall swells to an excited yelp and Lizzo takes to the stage under a a mirage of flashing lights and smoke. She plays 'Faded,' 'Paris at Night' and of course 'Batches and Cookies'; her lyrics bite with every beat and her confidence is utterly infectious.
About half-way through, she grabs a guy from the audience, and makes him wear a 'Lizzo Made Me Do It' t-shirt before ordering him to shake his booty before she joins in himself. This is a woman sure of herself as a person and as an entertainer. Just about everyone was throwing their hands in the air and singing their lungs out to every sing-along making for a triumphant end to Saturday night.
Les Transmusicales de Rennes is a beautiful festival that truly puts local and up-and-coming acts at the forefront of their mission; it's a festival where you can catch some of the hottest artists of the year whilst still discovering some new favourites; it's a festival that attracts puking 14-year-olds as well as 50-something locals. It's easy to see why it's in its 36th year and still going strong and I'll certainly be doing all that I can to head back next year.
Lead image of Lizzo via Arte.tv.